In January of 1985, the US Navy announced that it was going to purchase the F-16 as an adversary aircraft for service with dissimilar air combat training (DACT) in a program designed to enhance Navy Navy air combat operations and to emulate Soviet aircraft capabilities and tactics. The designation applied was F-16N.
26 F-16N adversary aircraft were built for the US Navy in 1987/88. The F-16N was based on the standard Block 30 F-16C/D and was powered by the General Electric F110-GE-100 engine. However, the F-16N had a strengthened wing and was capable of carrying an Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pod on the starboard wingtip. The ACMI pod allows details of air-to-air engagements to be transmitted to a ground station. Although the F-16N was based on the small-inlet Block 30 F-16C/D airframe, it carried the APG-66 radar of the F-16A/B which was lighter in weight but less capable than the APG-68 of the F-16C/D. In order to save even more weight, the F-16N carried no internal cannon and could not be fitted with air-to-air missiles. The electronic warfare fit consisted of an ALR-69 radar warning receiver rather than the ALR-65 fitted to the USAF version, plus an ALE-40 chaff/flare dispenser. Although the F-16N retained the runway arrester hooks of the Air Force versions, it was NOT carrier capable.
The TF-16N was a two-seat version of the F-16N, being based on an F-16D Block 30E aircraft, but the TF-16N was not combat capable, since it lacked the wiring for weapons launch. Apart from the second seat, the TF-16N was identical to the F-16N.
The first flight of an F-16N (85-1369/BuNo 163268) was made at Fort Worth on March 24, 1987, with company test pilot Dave Palmer at the controls. The first TF-16N two-seater (86-1379/BuNo 163278) flew for the first time on March 25, 1988, with Joe Sweeney and Joe Bill Dryden at the controls.
Deliveries of the F-16N to the Navy began in early 1987 and ended in May 1988. The first Navy squadron to receive the F-16N was VF-126 "Bandits", based at NAS Miramar, which is near San Diego in California. IOC at Miramar was achieved in April of 1987. The squadron's six aircraft (5 F-16Ns, one TF-16N) carried a Soviet-style red star inside a yellow border painted on the tail. Next to get the F-16N was VF-45 "Blackbirds", based at NAS Key West, which was equipped with F-16Ns in October of 1987. They originally flew 10 F-16Ns and two TF-16Ns, but six of their planes were later transferred to VF-43. Like the Miramar F-16Ns, the Key West planes carried a Soviet-style red star on their tails. The third Navy squadron to receive the F-16N was VF-43 "Challengers" based at NAS Oceana at Virginia Beach, Virginia, which operated six examples of the type in conjunction with F-5E, F-5F, A-4E and T-2C aircraft.
The F-16N also equipped the Naval Fighter Weapons School (better known as Top Gun) based at NAS Miramar, California, which took delivery of its first F-16Ns in June 1987. Eight F-16Ns served at Top Gun. One of them carried the "MARINES" title on its side, which represented that service's participation in the program.
A total of 22 single seat F-16Ns and four two-seat TF-16N trainers were ordered by the Navy. Because of its lighter weight and the higher power of the General Electric F110 engine, the F-16N was the best-performing variant of the Fighting Falcon series and was reportedly a real pleasure to fly.
In spite of the defense drawdown following the end of the Cold War, the Navy/Marine Corps still succeeded in maintaining a large adversary program for several years thereafter. In contrast, the USAF all but deactivated its own aggressor units immediately after Desert Storm. However, the budget cuts did eventually catch up to the Navy's adversary program, and Oceana-based VF-43 was deactivad in July of 1994.
In service, the F-16N suffered from fatigue cracks in its wings as a result of its violent maneuvers during training, and the fleet was grounded for a time in 1991 while these problems were attended to. As a result, the F/A-18 Hornet and the F-14 Tomcat began to take on an increasingly-important role in adversary training. All the F-16Ns were eventually permanently grounded because of the cracks in their wing structures, there being no money available in the budget to fix them. In 1994, the Navy announced that the F-16N fleet would be retired. The last F-16N was retired to AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB in January of 1995. The F-14 and F/A-18 now fulfill the Navy's needs for adversary training. One F-16N was sent to the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola.
In 2002, the Navy began to receive 14 F-16A and B models from AMARC that were originally intended for Pakistan but were embargoed. These aircraft are opeated by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (TOPGUN), but they are not designated F-16N/TF-16N.
Since the Navy still needs an aircraft for dissimilar air combat training, they have offered Bahrain a deal in which 18 retired F-16Ns would be exchanged for Bahrain's 12 Northrop F-5E/F Tigers. Although the F-16Ns will need an extensive upgrade to make them combat capable, with improved radar and avionics and repairs to their wings, they will nevertheless cost less than a batch of new F-16A/Bs which the USAF is also anxious to sell to Bahrain.
The Navy F-16Ns carry the following BuNos:
163268/163271 General Dynamics F-16N Block 30B Fighting Falcon alloted USAF serials 85-1369/1372. 163272/163277 General Dynamics F-16N Block 30C Fighting Falcon alloted USAF serials 85-1373/1378. 163278/163281 General Dynamics TF-16N Block 30E Fighting Falcon allotted USAF serials 85-1379/1382. 163566/163567 General Dynamics F-16N Block 30C Fighting Falcon allotted USAF serials 86-1684/1685. 163568/163575 General Dynamics F-16N Block 30D Fighting Falcon allotted USAF serials 86-1686/1693. 163576/163577 General Dynamics F-16N Block 30E Fighting Falcon allotted USAF serials 86-1694/1695.